A quick Google search of “top vs bottom” makes crystal clear that our preoccupation with labels seeps through even to the queer community. That’s not to say that labels can’t be useful – identifying as a top or a bottom can be another effective form of sexual communication, or of delineating what turns you on, whether that be heavier on the giving side or the receiving side. Yet, the slew of Google results – Vice’s “How Easy Is It to Tell Tops from Bottoms?” or GQ’s ““How to Know If You’re a Top or a Bottom?” – asks a question as old as time: who’s who, and how can I tell?
This question sounds like a faint echo of an old query, “So, who’s the man and who’s the woman, ifyuhknowwhattamean?” We know what you mean, Uncle Steve. Which is to say, that question is informed by the notion that queer relationships must mirror heterosexual relationships – those that presume outdated gender roles, that is. Trying to distinguish between tops and bottoms based on one’s gender expression typically follows suit: tops are presumed to be more masculine, and bottoms more femme. As with most issues of sexuality, binaries don’t tend to capture the important space between, and correlation between sexual role and gender expression is full of nuance.
Typically, topping is associated with masculinity – the penetrator. The language of top and bottom derives from the cis male gay community, hence its association with penetration. But what happens when penetrative sex isn’t a part of you and your partner’s sexualities, or when both partners are femme, or when one or neither partner identifies according to the gender binary?
A healthier understanding of topping might look to the BDSM world and power dynamics, where topping is akin to dominance. In the BDSM world and LGBTQ world alike, the Dominant in a sexual scenario can be masc, or femme, or non-binary; what they have in common is that they take on the giving or active role. It’s important to note, though, that tops can also have sexual desires that stem outside of being the giver – someone could be exclusively top, or they could identify as a top but also need to be on the receiving end sometimes, or they could be a “switch,” i.e. someone who fluctuates between the giving and receiving roles. In all the attention paid to bottoms and subs – safety, comfortability, focusing on their desires and needs – tops sometimes get forgotten about, or abandon their top identity to have their needs fulfilled.
In the end, the value of top vs bottom labeling can be found in self identifying. What does being a top, bottom, or switch mean for you? What are you hoping to communicate about your needs with this classification? Rather than fixate on trying to figure each other out, let’s keep smashing one-size-fits-all labels, and embrace a world without constraints.
Written by our intern, Olivia Poulin.